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Garland appoints war crimes prosecutor Jack Smith as special counsel to oversee Trump probes

Attorney General Merrick Garland has appointed Jack Smith, a former head of the Department of Justice public integrity section who previously served in prosecutorial roles at the International Criminal Court and the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, as a special prosecutor to consider whether former president Donald Trump should face criminal charges stemming from a series of ongoing probes into his conduct.

Mr Garland announced his plans at a news conference at Justice Department headquarters on Friday.

“Throughout his career, Jack Smith has built a reputation as an impartial and determined prosecutor, who leads teams with energy and focus to follow the facts, wherever they lead. As special counsel, he will exercise independent prosecutorial judgment to decide whether charges should be brought,” said Mr Garland, who added that Mr Smith would be returning to the US from The Hague, where he has been serving as a chief prosecutor for the special court charged with investigating and prosecuting war crimes.

Mr Garland also said the appointment of Mr Smith as a special counsel would not slow completion of the investigations under his purview.

The attorney general announced that Mr Smith will oversee probes into two matters: “The investigation into into whether any person or entity unlawfully interfered with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election. or the certification of the Electoral College vote,” and an “ongoing investigation involving classified documents and other presidential records as well as the possible obstruction of an investigation referenced and described in court filings in a pending manner in the Southern District of Florida”.

Mr Garland also said the career prosecutors who have been working on both probes have done so “in the best traditions of the Department of Justice” but said it was in the “public interest to appoint a special counsel” following Mr Trump’s announcement that he would be a candidate for president in the 2024 Republican primary.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces that he is appointing Jack Smith as a special counsel for the investigations of former President Donald Trump, while speaking to the news media in the briefing room of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2022 (REUTERS)
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces that he is appointing Jack Smith as a special counsel for the investigations of former President Donald Trump, while speaking to the news media in the briefing room of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2022 (REUTERS)

“Such an appointment underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters. It also allows prosecutors and agents to continue to work expeditiously and to make decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law,” he said.

In a statement, Mr Smith said he intends to conduct the investigations under his purview and “ any prosecutions that may result from them independently and in the best traditions of the Department of Justice”.

“The pace of the investigations will not pause or flag under my watch. I will exercise independent judgment and will move the investigation forward expeditiously and thoroughly to whatever outcome the facts and the law dictates,” he said.

The former war crimes prosecutor will be in charge of deciding whether to commence an unprecedented prosecution of Mr Trump, whose Palm Beach, Florida home was searched by FBI agents on 8 August. The ex-president has been under investigation for allegedly violating multiple US criminal statutes governing the unlawful retention of national defence information and prohibiting obstruction of justice.

His conduct before and during the January 6 attack on the Capitol is also the focus of a separate investigation looking into attempts to submit forged electoral college certificates to the National Archives.

The probe into Mr Trump’s retention of highly classified documents has to date been overseen by the department’s national security division, while the US Attorney for the District of Columbia has been conducting the probe into the Capitol attack.

Justice Department regulations call for a special counsel — a prosecutor brought in from outside the department — to oversee criminal investigations when an investigation “could present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances”.

A special prosecutor is also warranted under the regulations when appointing one would be “in the public interest”.

The appointment of an outside prosecutor to oversee the investigations into Mr Trump comes just days after the twice-impeached ex-president announced that he will be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Mr Trump, who was also the subject of a two-year investigation by another special counsel, ex-FBI director Robert Mueller, has routinely decried any and all investigations into his conduct as solely motivated by a desire to hurt him on the part of his political enemies.

Representatives for Mr Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Independent.